Squirrels are one of the most ubiquitous and commonly seen forms of wildlife in the UK after wild birds, and in fact, if you feed the local wild birds to help them to survive the winter and to enjoy the spectacle that they create in your garden, you might well find that you see almost as many squirrels at your feeders as you do birds!
Squirrels are often very bold and highly opportunistic about getting food, which means that if you walk your dog in a park, woods or other space where squirrels tend to live, you and your dog probably see a lot of them – and few dogs can resist the opportunity to chase them.
Whilst squirrels can be a pest, and in fact the hugely common grey squirrel is legally recognised as such due to being an invasive species in the UK that has largely pushed out our own native red squirrels entirely, it is still important to teach your pet dog not to chase them!
This is particularly important during the autumn months when squirrels are often a lot more visible, active, and less wary of people and dogs than normal, as they’re frantically gathering the nuts and other resources they need to see them through their winter hibernation.
With this in mind, this article will explain the basics of why dogs chase squirrels, and vitally, why you shouldn’t let your dog chase squirrels too. Read on to learn more.
All dogs have a prey drive to some extent, which is their innate, evolutionary drive to pursue smaller animals as potential prey for food. This trait helped dogs to evolve and survive in the wild, but can actually hamper their health and survival within our modern domestic world!
Virtually any dog that has not been trained out of exhibiting their prey drive will pursue prey if it is obvious and easy enough, and it is not always possible to train any given dog out of pursuing prey – or to stop if recalled – entirely.
Squirrels are one of the most obvious and to the dog, easy potential prey targets too, because squirrels are so common and prolific in the UK, large enough to be quite visible, mobile enough to catch the dog’s attention, and often, very bold about coming into close quarters with dogs and people.
Dogs don’t generally manage to catch squirrels as often as you might expect them to, for a variety of reasons. First of all, whilst squirrels will often come close to dogs and people and don’t appear to be paying much mind to them, they are also fast-moving, don’t stay still on the ground for long at a time, and have a wide and acute field of vision, which enables them to take in a lot of visual information at once and react quickly if a threat approaches.
Additionally, squirrels don’t tend to stray far out into the open, remaining within close proximity to trees, bushes and other forms of protection as a general rule, which they can retreat to quickly if threatened.
Squirrels are also very good vertical acrobats, who can get themselves out of reach into a tree or other high-up space very quickly, and then they just need to wait the dog out, as dogs can’t climb trees – or alternatively, head off across the park tree by tree, and be long gone by the time the dog finally realises that their prey is absent!
However, even with all of this in mind, it is important to know that dogs can and sometimes do catch squirrels, and this is particularly likely to happen during the autumn, even if your dog has no luck with them at all at other times of year.
This is because squirrels spend much more time on the ground in autumn collecting nuts for winter, and are also more driven by this survival urge to gather food for hibernation than they are at other times of the year, and so are a little more likely to be distracted and take risks, like not retreating from a threat very promptly.
Why you should train your dog not to chase squirrels
Firstly, a dog that is pursuing prey is functioning instinctively, with all of their focus and attention on catching that prey. Dogs chasing another animal can and sometimes will injure themselves doing so, as their self-preservation instincts go out of the window.
A dog might run through a barbed wire fence, across a road, or even into a tree as a result of pursuing a squirrel, and so you should not simply see squirrel chasing as harmless fun, even if your dog couldn’t catch a cold, never mind a wild animal!
Don’t forget too that a dog running wild and out of control is not just a danger to themselves and their potential prey – but also to other people. They could cause an accident or other problems for third parties, even if they themselves walk away unscathed themselves.
Also, permitting your dog to chase squirrels enhances their prey drive, which is apt to manifest in the pursuit of other wildlife too; it may encourage your dog to chase other animals like rabbits, and even domestic cats, both of which are much easier to catch than squirrels as a rule.
Wildlife like squirrels can spread nasties to your dog too – parasites like fleas, ticks and mites, and also potentially other issues such as zoonotic diseases.
Eating wildlife will often result in a digestive upset for your dog, and if your dog eats a wild animal that has been poisoned or that has otherwise ingested or been exposed to toxins, this can make your dog seriously ill as well.
Finally, as we alluded to earlier on, those grey squirrels we see every day are an invasive species, and a pest – but we do also still have a very small number of our beautiful native red squirrels too, which some of us have literally never seen, so uncommon are they in the UK today.
If your dog chases grey squirrels and you’re lucky enough to have reds in your local area, they will also pursue these – and the loss of even one red squirrel is a real tragedy, and something that all dog owners should take pains to prevent.